Austin ISD expects to complete all 2022 bond projects in the next six years
The Austin Independent School District plans to modernize more than two dozen campuses over the next six years. Some campuses will be partially renovated, while others will be completely rebuilt.
The projects are part of the district's historic $2.4 billion bond program voters approved last November.
The voters’ approval allows Austin ISD to borrow money to cover the cost of hundreds of projects districtwide. Many of the projects are aimed at improving the facilities at Title 1 schools, which have a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students.
One of those schools is Linder Elementary, where more than 90% of the student population is economically disadvantaged. It’s one of the schools that is getting a full modernization, which typically means a brand new building. The project is set to get underway this year, and the estimated cost is just over $56 million. Linder’s Principal Melissa Rodriguez said she broke into tears when she found out the bond passed.
“I was just so excited because I knew we needed the space,” she said. “I knew we had growing enrollment.”
Rodriguez said she is looking forward to having a new school that is developed to meet the needs of teachers and students, instead of trying to retrofit a 50-year-old campus. She said that is especially important when it comes to school safety.
“Knowing the needs of our community and our students and staff and the concern around [school safety], it's going to be, I think, very reassuring to have those safety features present in the building that's going to be modernized,” she said.
But Rodriguez also hopes the new build incorporates some of the spaces that are precious to the school.
“We have a lot of outdoor learning areas right now,” she said. “We have butterfly gardens, we have ponds, we have a chicken coop.”
School staff, parents and community members will have the opportunity to give feedback on what the new facility looks like by applying to be on Campus Architectural Teams, which normally have 10 to 15 members. Austin ISD anticipates the modernization of Linder Elementary will be complete in late 2025.
Normally, students can remain on their own campus during construction, sometimes in portable buildings. But some schools will need to temporarily relocate to another facility. The district has not yet announced which campuses may need to move.
The 24 other schools that will be fully or partially modernized include Pecan Springs Elementary, Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy and Travis Early College High School. The complete list of schools and project timelines are available here in English and here in Spanish.
Another 2022 bond project that Austin ISD is prioritizing is installing security vestibules at all campuses. The vestibules are intended to make it easier to control who is entering school buildings.
“We're looking at the quickest way to get security vestibules built into all of our campuses,” said Michael Mann, Austin ISD's executive director of construction management.
All of the Austin ISD campuses modernized as part of the 2017 bond program have security vestibules, but Mann estimates that more than 70 schools do not have them. He anticipates all campuses will have the vestibules by the summer of 2025.
Overall, the district expects all of the bond projects to be finished in 2028.
“We operate on about a five-year bond cycle, and we're looking to complete the majority of the work in five years,” said Mann. “But being honest and upfront, it's going to be six years before we're able to wrap it up.”
Austin ISD’s Chief Financial Officer Ed Ramos said the district planned for rising construction costs when it was developing the 2022 bond package.
“We did incorporate and plan for inflation in our numbers,” he said. “And, so we actually built in 12% to 15% inflation, depending on when we knew the projects would [start construction].”
Ramos said the district will sell bonds periodically to have the cash on hand for the bond projects. In January, AISD successfully sold $600 million of its bond debt. But he points out that one of the challenges the district faced when it entered the market is that the state’s Permanent School Fund Bond Guarantee Program has reached capacity. The program helps school districts get low interest rates because the state is committed to paying lenders back if school districts can’t.
“So we had to enter the market with our own bond rating, which luckily for us, we have a AAA bond rating, which is the highest bond rating that a school district can have in Texas,” Ramos said.
The Texas Tribune reports that two Texas congressmen, Austin Democrat Lloyd Doggett and Lubbock Republican Jodey Arrington, have filed legislation to remove the limit on the bond guarantee program. It’s named the Keeping Texas School Construction Costs Down Act of 2023.
The public can track Austin ISD’s progress on the 2022 bond program at AISDFuture.com. The Austin ISD school board also appointed volunteers to the Community Bond Oversight Committee to monitor the projects' progress. Their next meeting is March 7.